The New Faces Of Death is a series of profiles and interviews in which Dirge is celebrating five influential women passionately involved in the Death Positivity / Death Acceptance movement. Women who seek, in different ways, to educate our repressed society regarding the various facets of death and how to cultivate a relationship with death that is liberating, humanizing–and ultimately–life-enhancing. From mourning and memory to pathology and the intricacies of the human body, from the meaning of a “good death” to The Order of the Good Death, and The Death Salon: we invite you to read further, learn much, and meet the new faces of Death.
Our first installment highlighted Sarah Troop, Executive Director of The Order of the Good Death and Social Media Editor for Death Salon, as well as, blogger and writer at Nourishing Death and Death and the Maiden.
Next we spoke with Bess Lovejoy, a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of the bestselling Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, and is a member of The Order of the Good Death and a founding member of Death Salon.
We then focused our attention on Amber Carvaly, a CA native, and a mortician and Service Director at Undertaking LA. Along with owner Caitlin Doughty (Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Ask A Mortician), they aim to raise awareness that families are empowered, both legally and logistically, to be involved in the care of their own dead.
Last week the spotlight was on Megan Rosenbloom, the Associate Director for Collection Resources at the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She is also the director of Death Salon, as well as the resident death expert on Vice’s Entitlement podcast.
Today we speak with Carla Valentine, the Anatomical Pathology Technician and Technical Curator at Barts Pathology Museum. She is also a member of The Order of the Good Death and runs a dating and networking site for death professionals called Dead Meet. You can also visit her website The Chick and the Dead.
Dirge: How did you become interested in death and how did that lead to your current role in the death industry, or as a death positive activist?
Carla Valentine: I think this is probably the question I’m most frequently asked and one of the hardest to answer! I’ve been interested in biology and the human body for as long as I can remember, and I was reading A-level biology text books when my friends were reading Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter. I also loved Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle as a child, so I discovered the science of forensics long before it was as well-known as it is now. These two interests seemed to merge. It was fascinating to me that the human body could offer up the clues as to how people had died, as well as those which diagnose disease in life. But it took a pivotal moment for me to realize it was mortuary work I wanted to do as a career and I can’t give that away–it’s in my upcoming book!
What drew you to your particular profession?
When it comes to my profession I still think of myself as two things. Firstly, I am a Mortuary Technician–which I shorten to “Mortician” for ease because the real title is Anatomical Pathology Technician. This means I’m qualified at a senior level to carry out autopsies with a Pathologist.
Secondly, I’m a Pathology Museum Curator, which means I research the history of anatomy and pathology, teach medical students the history of pathology, and engage the public. So the thing that’s attracting me to my current professions is that I have one foot planted in the past of pathology and death and one firmly in the present/future.
What do you want people to take away from the work that you do?
The first thing I want people to take away is the passion that I feel for the amazing topic of pathology and the intricacies of the human body. If I can get someone to say “Wow, that’s interesting” rather than “Urgh, that’s gross,” then I’m happy.
The other thing I want people to understand is that it’s not weird to discuss REAL death and to advocate the use of medical collections for education for all. I think people are too far removed from the actuality of death now and perhaps society is suffering for it.
What this means is increasing our intimacy (as I see it) with death and with the dead, which is why I research all possible relationships with human remains, from spectatorship (medical museums) to physical intimacy (necrophilia).
What are some of the most common misconceptions you’ve run into about your job and to a larger extent, the death industry in general? What do you do to disabuse people of those notions–or not?
I find that the misconceptions I run into tend to be about autopsy procedure. Because it’s been a very clandestine profession for a while (though this is changing), there are misunderstandings about the process. Some people believe an autopsy will leave a loved one disfigured or not viewable and that’s not the case. Others believe all the organs are removed whole to be “tested” when in actual fact if any tissue needs to be sent for testing it will be a tiny amount–the size of a pea. Openly discussing post-mortem procedures will help to dispel some of these misconceptions.
Many people find working with the dead or talking about death creepy, or macabre, or morbid–how do you enroll those people into the conversation?
I find that it’s actually the opposite now–most people are incredibly interested in the topic, whether it’s my job or one of my projects, and it can be hard to move the conversation onto something else! I remember a time when talking about these things was “morbid” and I remember being called “macabre” and a “weirdo.” Now those same people are trying to contact me, as they’ve seen me on TV or in the press discussing these same “morbid” topics, and are fascinated by it.
Can you tell us about the death community in your area, is it welcoming and/or responsive to what you are doing?
The UK is such a small place that the “death community” is relatively small too; but when we had the Death Salon here in 2014, there was so much positivity about it that I’d certainly say it’s welcoming and responsive, I think perhaps moreso here than in the US because we are more liberal in some ways. The hugely popular Death Cafes began here for example (after Jon Underwood saw something similar in Switzerland), and Green Burial is more common here than in the US. We also have the Good Funeral Awards, and I just won one which was a new category–Major Contribution to the Understanding of Death–which shows the death community is expanding.
What is your role, as you see it, within the Order of the Good Death, and can you tell us a little bit about what you did at this year’s Death Salon?
As one of the members of The Order with hands-on (actually that should be hands-IN) experience with the deceased, I see part of my role as a sort of “death technical advisor.” I’ve carried out autopsies on people who’ve unfortunately died in nearly every possible way imaginable, so I like to think that I can take something from all that experience and offer expertise where necessary–sometimes I’ve been employed to do this for TV shows and on films. However, as a curator of a pathology museum currently researching our relationships with human remains, my role also involves discussions on the ethics of display, increasing our exposure to the dead (via these collections in particular), and why I advocate it.
I was unfortunately not involved in Death Salon: Mutter. Had I been involved I would have discussed my new project, Remains To Be Seen, which is an advocacy network for human remains collections. It has a corresponding website and Instagram (@remains2beseen) through which I educate people about human remains in different contexts.
What can we do to open up the conversation on death? To not just increase awareness of it, but to make more sense of death and dying–to allay our death anxiety?
The current model seems to be working quite well so far! However, what I have noticed is that though the general public is interested in this new dialogue on death and mortality, many academics are not.
How have your views on the afterlife affected your involvement in the death industry, or vice versa?
My views on the afterlife haven’t affected anything because when I’m working on a patient or researching specimen, it’s the past and present which I focus on, not the future.
And lastly, what is your ideal death scenario–your dream death, a “good death” as it were?
I imagine everyone says they’d like to go “during their sleep”? Perhaps something a little more interesting then: skydiving, drowning in chocolate, or being eaten by wolves.